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Grand Ole Collectibles

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Country music is such a broad field — from bluegrass to country-and-western to cowboy to rockabilly — that most collectors narrow their searches to a specific area. One such possibility is Grand Ole Opry memorabilia.

Since the Opry's start in 1925, it has spanned so much of country music's history, its performers having included virtually a historic Who's Who of the genre — Tex Ritter, Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, June Carter and Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Roy Acuff, Tammy Wynette — and even (in a one-time 1954 appearance — apparently because of some rude comments backstage) a teenage Elvis Presley.

The beginnings of the Opry weren't all that grand. In 1925, a Nashville firm called the National Life and Accident Co., seeking an inexpensive way to advertise their products, built a small radio station on the top floor of their five-story premises, using the call letters WSM, after its slogan "We Shield Millions." They hired a young programming director named George D. Hay, who had launched a popular "National Barn Dance" show at station WLS (for "World's Largest Store," as it was owned by Sears, Roebuck and Co.) in Chicago.

The Nashville version, featuring such performers as the Gully Jumpers, Dr. Henry Bates and the Possum Hunters, the Binkley Brothers Clod Hoppers, and the Fruit Jar Drinkers, (whose "red hot fiddle playing" closed every show) caught on quickly. Two years later, Hay, following one of the station's classical programs, proclaimed on air that instead of stuffy grand opera, he would present some much more down to earth music and call the program the "Grand Old Opry." And then introduced a man he dubbed the "Harmonica Wizard"-DeFord Bailey. With Hay, called "The Solemn Ole Judge," serving as announcer, the show soon drew large crowds eager to see the performers in person.

Its first real star was a Tennessee banjo player named Uncle Dave, who did tricks like playing two banjos at once and flipping the instruments in the air.

Before long, a larger space was needed to accommodate the masses of people willing to pay 25 cents to see the live show, so it moved from The National Life Building to several successive locations, from the suburban Hillsboro Theatre in 1934 to the Dixie Tabernacle, and the War Memorial Auditorium in 1939, before finally moving into the 2,400-seat Ryman Auditorium in 1943, where it would remain for the next three decades.

By 1940, the show was successful enough for a self-titled movie to be made, starring George Hay, Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, and several of the other Opry regulars. During World War II the Grand Ole Opry Camel Caravan was formed to entertain the troops, starring Eddy Arnold, Pee Wee King, and the comedienne who would become one of its most iconic stars, Minnie Pearl, wearing her famous hat with its dangling $1.98 price tag.

In 1949, the show, hosted by Opry fiddler-singer Roy Acuff, was picked up by NBC, eventually beamed over a thousand radio stations across the world. Still broadcast live from Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry is the oldest continuous radio program in the United States.

Over the years, the show had a number of sponsors, including Schick razors, Coca-Cola, Kellogg's cereals, Lava soap, Pet milk and P.J. Reynolds and Prince Albert tobacco, some of which issued collectible merchandise. But most of the memorabilia came directly from the Opry, such things as Opryland collector plates, ceramic mugs, moustache cups and beer steins, a Minnie Pearl lusterware cup and saucer, a paper autograph fan depicting Christ kneeling in Gethsemane, a ceramic guitar-shaped bank, brass ashtrays, toothpick holders, wall plaques, cream pitchers, souvenir spoons and spoon rests, squirrel and pipe-shaped salt and peppers, and many other similar items. Also, of course, there is promotional material, ads, autographs and programs — and the recorded music itself.

Linda Rosenkrantz has edited Auction magazine and authored 18 books, including "Cool Names for Babies" and "The Baby Name Bible" (St. Martin's Press). Visit her baby names website at http://nameberry.com. She cannot answer letters personally. To find out more about Linda Rosenkrantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.



Comments

3 Comments | Post Comment
I've held on to a little book for years without any knowledge of the author. I began to research him, George D. Hay, to find that he is an American icon! The book I own is Howdy Judge and is signed by the author to a nurse I believe was in War World II. I write because I was in disbelief to find that the author was much more than I expected and I wonder if the book is of value due to the author and signature?!
Comment: #1
Posted by: Raven
Mon May 18, 2009 6:21 PM
My sister was going through boxes the other day and she found a book from the Grand Ole Opry from Nov 1970. It has pictures of all the older stars like String Bean, Grandpa Jones , Minnie Pearl and several others. The cost of the book in 1970 was 2.00. The program was still in the book, I was wondering if this might be a collectors item or is it just something that we would keep to show our grandchildren when they get older? Could you let me know how I could research this book and program?

Thank you
Comment: #2
Posted by: sherril
Sun Aug 15, 2010 6:13 PM
I have found a very very old bumper sticker in my grandfathers stuff I had stored away. He worked for National Life at the time it was on the roof and my mother use to sit on stage. Do you know of anyone that collects these items. I looked on e-bay, but found nothing as old and good as this is. It is in very good condition.
Comment: #3
Posted by: susan digiovanni
Wed Feb 23, 2011 3:21 PM
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